It’s all in the wrist: Thurles-born Paula Stakelum oversees the entire pastry and dessert department at the five-star Ashford Castle, which is often cited as one of the best hotels in the world
For any amateur baker it’s reassuring to know that even the best in the business have been known to burn a batch of cookies from time to time, albeit in the case of executive head pastry chef at Ashford Castle Paula Stakelum, she was about six when it happened.
Now at just 32, Thurles-born Stakelum has become one of the most sought-after young chefs in the country, ranking in the top eight patisserie chefs in the world following the global Valrhona C3 competition held in New York last month.
But like anyone who reaches the height of their profession, Stakelum’s rise to the top is all down to hard work, determination and countless hours spent perfecting her skills in the kitchen.
“New York was quite an experience — you’re competing with the best and the pressure is on,” says the person in charge of the entire pastry and dessert department at the five-star hotel which is often listed among the best in the world, having catered for countless celebrity weddings, film stars and the mega rich.
“It was a pretty intense few days, but I did everything I set out to do. I’m proud of my work,” adds Paula, who has been part of the Ashford team for the past eight years.
Having dabbled with the idea of studying accountancy at school, a work experience placement in the kitchens of Hayes Hotel in Liberty Square while in transition year changed Paula’s future forever, leading to the Ursuline student applying for a place at CIT to study professional cookery.
While in Cork, she honed her skills across all areas of the kitchen however it wasn’t until a move to Galway to complete a BA in Culinary Arts at GMIT that she found her true calling.
On her days off from the course she found a part time job with the Ardilaun Hotel in the city, quickly excelling in the fast paced environment, and was made head pastry chef at the hotel by the time she turned 21. S
he remained at the hotel for the next five years until headhunters from Ashford Castle came calling with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse — offering her a position as head pastry chef in 2010. Again her hard work and attention to detail saw the young chef flourish and by 2013 she was promoted to her current position at the estate.
Earlier this year Stakelum’s eye for detail and contemporary flavour combinations saw her top the leader board at the regional C3 Valrhona championships in Paris, earning her a place in the grand final of the competition in the US this October.
For Paula, the path to New York was a culmination of 18 months labour.
“It’s a year of your life. I pushed myself harder than ever before,” she says of her near 16-hour days spent trialing new techniques and developing recipes using ingredients foraged from the 350-acre sprawling estate on the Galway/ Mayo border.
And it was this magical castle, with its lavish gardens, ancient woodland and architecture that provided the necessary inspiration for Stakelum’s New York masterpiece. Using whiskey bottled exclusively for Ashford, wood sorrel foraged from the estate and pine oil supplied by Shortcross Gin Distillery, she created a dessert that was not only visually striking but also managed to capture the essence of Ashford.
But despite making the top eight of a competition which recognises the best pastry chefs in the world, she says she felt disappointment at not being in the first three.
SWEET SUCCESS: Executive head pastry chef at Ashford Castle Paula Stakelum with Mrs Tollman, president and founder of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, which includes Ashford Castle estate
“It was tough but a good experience. I’m lucky because this hotel has been an incredible place to work and I wasn’t the pastry chef I am now when I first started here,” she says, heaping praise on general manager Niall Rochford and head chef Philippe Farineau, who happily volunteered as guinea pigs while she was testing recipes for the competition.
“I like to start my day with a run, then I’ll be in the kitchen for 9am, meet the bakers and the other pastry chefs on their way in. I do my chocolate work in the morning, and then I start prepping for the afternoon tea service and the restaurant which opens at 6pm. Then it’s the fine dining service and I might finish up at about 11 or 12pm,” she says, casually adding that she’s recently been appointed to oversee the sweet treats produced at Ashford Lodge and is currently creating her own blend of chocolate exclusively available at the castle.
“They try to tell me to work less but I love being here, creating and coming up with ideas. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”.
And for Paula, that persistence has surely paid off.